Real transparency in River Forest government

Opinion

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By Daniel Lauber

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With a simple rule change, the River Forest Village Board can achieve the transparency in government that was AWOL at its Feb. 11 meeting.

The agenda, released just three days before that meeting, included an ordinance reducing citizen comments at village board meetings and adding "Rule 6: Reconsideration" to its Rules and Order of Business that would allow trustees to reconsider a village board vote. Instead of the usual procedure where the board can reconsider its vote only at the meeting where the vote was first taken, this new rule would allow the board to reconsider any vote at its next meeting, potentially exposing village trustees to political pressure between meetings and delaying the finality of any vote.

Had the board approved this rule change, it would have gone into effect immediately (highly unusual timing) on Feb. 11. Going into effect immediately would have enabled the board to reconsider its vote taken at its previous meeting which denied a zoning variance and instead reverse itself to grant the variance despite the variance proposal failing to meet the standards for approval.

For all practical purposes, the public had no notice of these changes and effort to alter board rules to instantly benefit one property owner. Until the agenda was released three days before the Feb. 11 meeting, the public had no clue these rule changes were up for consideration or that this series of votes was scheduled. These ordinances weren't even on the radar of Wednesday Journal, the public's firewall against political shenanigans.

Fortunately, there's a simple way to prevent attempts to pass an ordinance with inadequate public notice: Require every ordinance (with an exception for actual emergencies) to be read at two separate village board meetings before the board can vote on it. This approach has been so effective at promoting government transparency and citizen participation and is supported across the political spectrum so much that California, Nevada, and Florida require all local governments to hold two readings.

This rule would prevent the village board from voting on an ordinance before the public knows much about it. That first reading alerts the media which reports on it, informing the general public. In cities with this rule, I've consistently seen few people come to the first reading of an ordinance, but when alerted by an article in the local paper, large numbers often show up to voice their views at the second reading.

This approach gives local governments and the public time to better evaluate and vet the ordinance's worthiness and identify possible unintended consequences — that's real citizen participation.

Requiring two readings fosters the transparency on which so many elected officials run for office. It enables the public to know what measures its representatives are considering.

The River Forest Village Board will again consider adding "Rule 6: Reconsideration" to its Rules and Order of Business when it meets Feb. 25. Residents should attend this Monday at 7 p.m. at village hall and speak their mind, or contact village trustees at https://www.vrf.us/contact-board.aspx now to urge them to reject Rule 6 and require readings of an ordinance at two separate village board meetings. 

Let's take this giant step toward actually achieving the governmental transparency our village trustees all insist they favor.

See the rule change and detailed analysis at http://www.riverforestmatters.com.

Daniel Lauber is a planner/zoning attorney and a River Forest resident.

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